By Bill Whitehead
About 15 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, I heard the late great Dale Earnhardt tell a throng of us media types what the difference was between a winning team and a second-tier one. What Earnhardt was basically doing was laying out the blueprint for champions and describing how some teams routinely come up short. Hey, a seven-time champ was talking, so it was well worth the listen to get his perspective.
The salient point of Earnhardt’s theory – and when he held court, he truly was running the show – was that it’s easy to earn championship points when you have a car capable of running in the top five. It’s even easier to hoist a trophy as a race winner, but those days pretty much speak for themselves – a great driver and a super-fast car leaving the competition in the mirrors and racing to the checkers. However, he went on to say that it’s really not what winners do on those memorable days, it’s how they perform in races when they don’t have their best equipment. The true gains, he acknowledged, were when he took a car that should have finished 20th or worse and clawed his way into the top 10, turning a potentially disastrous, championship-ruining day into a respectable one.
Earnhardt was saying it all comes down to how a driver, team or players perform when they don’t have their A game.
Despite riding a 4-game winning streak as the puck dropped in Ottawa against a reeling bunch of Senators, Florida didn’t have their A game early. Florida failed on early offensive chances to beat ex-Cat Craig Anderson, who has struggled like every netminder has for Ottawa. Florida’s defense also put hot goalie Scott Clemmensen in a perilous predicament or two when the Sens put together a couple of 2-on-1 rushes, but Clemmensen was up to the task. When the first 20 minutes were over, Florida had been outshot 14-9, something that hasn’t happened to them often lately.
Though they weren’t playing at the level they did against Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Florida kept grinding. Aleksander Barkov tipped in a shot from Tom Gilbert for the second period’s only goal, and when the horn sounded, Cats’ fans had to like their chances of being tied with the Senators and Anderson (who came in 10-1-1 against his old team) in Ottawa, where the Sens have owned Florida lately.
Florida (14-17-5) took over in the third period, and while I’m sure many will point to Ottawa having playing in New Jersey the night before, the Panthers deserve all the credit and then some because they really had to earn it. They killed off a tripping penalty by Erik Gudbranson, then found themselves on the power play when Jean-Gabriel Pageau high-sticked Dylan Olsen with 4:30 left to play. One of the great mysteries of the game was how Pageau didn’t get a double-minor when Olsen was clearly cut on the forehead and the defenseman went up to the referee to show him. The end result: Gilbert bailed out Florida’s anemic power-play with a blast past Anderson, and Kopecky later put the game away with the club’s first shorty this season.
Simply, the Panthers fought and fought all night in Canada’s capital – through the fatigue of a weary road trip in bitter cold, against failed opportunities, against an overturned goal and a missed penalty by Ottawa that would have sealed a win with another goal or at least taken more time off the board. Despite all of that, the Panthers won their fifth straight, have taken seven out of eight, and certainly arrived in brutally freezing Winnipeg with the warmth of confidence to rely on.
They overcame and persevered in Ottawa.
That’s what Earnhardt was describing and what the Cats were able to do.